Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

I left Ethiopia with plenty of stories to tell. About the most amazing place I’d ever seen in my life , about bag slashers and pickpockets, about rabid dogs, about the people I met, and about life in Ethiopia in general.

Along with the stories came the lessons I learned from my time here. Here are some of the things I’d now know and the things I do differently the next time we come to travel Ethiopia.

Where to stay in Addis Ababa

Piazza

Pros:
– Piazza is where Addis Ababa’s cheap hotels can be found. Naturally, this is where all the backpackers tend to hangout. Taitu or Baro hotels are both located in Piazza.
– Conveniently close to shops, the Ethiopian airline office, and minibus routes.

Cons:
What kind of image do you have in mind when you think of the word, ‘piazza’? A pedestrian-friendly, leafy square lined with cafes with umbrellas? Silly me, that’s exactly what I was expecting and I couldn’t be more wrong.

Addis’s Piazza is a crazy busy, intersection/roundabout filled with jostling minibuses, shabby looking stores, and the occasional child beggars. I honestly did not like this area at all. It’s dirty, crowded, and just all around high in dodgy-ness level.

Bole Road:

Pros
– After staying in Taitu Hotel in Piazza for 2 days, I moved to a small guesthouse off Bole road – Addis’ main financial district – and loved it so much more. It’s closer to the airport, to the embassies, to Meskal Square (where long distance buses arrive and depart).

– Major minibus lines run along Bole Road, making it easy to get around Addis.

– Recommended guesthouse in Addis Ababa – Rita Guesthouse. It’s $20-$25 per room which is expensive. But I love the location. It also comes with a decent wifi connection IN the room and the people who work there are super friendly. It’s located on Democratic Congo Street, down the first alley on your right as you turn off Bole Road.

Cons
It’s harder to meet other travelers, especially the budget kinds. I ended up using Thorntree a lot to organize my trip to the Danakil depression and south to Omo Valley.

Addis Ababa minibuses

Addis Ababa public minibuses

Safety

I’ve read somewhere that Addis Ababa is one of the safest capital cities in Africa. That might be true when it comes to violent crimes – but not so much if we’re talking petty crimes such as pickpocketing. I’d never experienced so many attempts at pick pocketing in such a short amount of time before.

Bag slashed by a pickpocket in Mekele, Ethiopia

Bag slashed by a pickpocket in Mekele, Ethiopia

Here are some tips I’ve learned on how to deter pickpockets

Be extremely careful when leaving/arriving by bus in Meskal Square. Each time I was in the area, I witnessed pickpocket attempts done on other people and on myself. Between the hustle and bustle of getting your bags out of the bus, and the crowd of people, it’s a ripe opportunity for these unsavory characters.
Do not get on a minibus that doesn’t approach you yelling their destination (and instead ask YOU where you want to go). Even better, only get on from one of the ‘official’ stops – which granted, is usually nothing more than a corner where you see a bunch of locals gather. Read this post to learn why.
Be wary of kids selling tissues or candies on a tray they carry around their neck. As they crowd around you, they’d use the tray to cover their hands as they go for your pocket.
Merkato is another place to be super careful. Can’t stress this enough. I wouldn’t come here wearing a backpack with anything valuable in it.
In retrospect, if I had to do it again, I’d wear moneybelt everywhere and only keep small change in my pocket.

Internet in Ethiopia

Reliable internet connection is still rare in Ethiopia. Taitu Hotel did have wifi but only on their patio and it was so choppy it was frustrating.

Wifi, however, is available on the the common area of many international hotels (e.g. Jupiter Hotel and Intercontinental) and they’re usually pretty lax on foreigners that come to smooch off their connection (just buy a drink).

Another reason I like to stay in Bole area – it’s close to a lot of these major hotels.

The common lounge (aka 'Computer Room') in Jupiter Hotel on Bole Road

The common lounge (aka 'Computer Room') in Jupiter Hotel on Bole Road

General Tips on Ethiopia

Bring a cellphone. This is probably the most important tip I can give to people coming to visit Ethiopia for longer than a week. I ended up using my cellphone so much I can’t imagine what it’d be like without. I used it to confirm flights, to reserve flight tickets, to call taxis, to book hotels, etc.

Refilling your minutes was super easy. You can buy refill cards anywhere. If you set the APN correctly (etc.com), you can use it for Internet as well without having to buy a separate plan. More info here.

You can only get SIM card from select stores. Try any store that also sells refill cards. Some proof of ID is required.

Bring US dollars. Especially if you’re planning to go one of the longer expeditions such as to Danakil depression in the north, or visiting the tribes in Omo Valley.

If you’re going to be in and out of Addis a lot, get yourself a reliable taxi driver (Debebe at 0912 190928 was my taxi driver in Addis). All taxi drivers in Ethiopia carry a cellphone and when you try to arrange a ride they always say “Here’s my #, call me anytime. I’ll come.”

Debebe, a taxi driver in Addis

This is Debebe

Taxis from airport to Bole Rd should cost around 60-100 Birrs, 125-150 Birrs to Piazza. I absolutely feel safe in taxis and taxi drivers in Addis are some of the most charming drivers I’ve met (despite the fact that they never give you the local rate doesn’t matter how hard you bargain).

But if you want to save money, walk out completely out of the airport ground and there will be a minibus station under the freeway to your right and you’d be able to take it to the Piazza or anywhere on Bole (3-5 Birrs).

Be aware of Ethiopia’s way of telling the time that differs by 6 hours from our own. They state their time in how many hours after sunrise (6 am) it is. So their 1 o’clock refers to 1 hour after sunset = 7 am our time. Or, simply say “habesha time” or “gringo time” – as in “Pick me up at 4 in the morning – habesha time, yes?” and repeat that many, many times.

Blue public minibuses is a cheap way to get around Addis Ababa. Some areas of particular interest to travelers are Bole, Meskal Square, Piazza. The cost depends on the distance, but should be around a couple of Birrs if not less. I usually just hand a 5 Birr note and expect change. I was never ripped off. They do get mighty crowded though.

Bring a warm jacket. When you think of Ethiopia, do you think deserts? Addis Ababa is one of the highest (altitude wise at over 2000 m) capital cities in the world and it can actually get pretty chilly at night.

Confirm flights 24 hours before. Apparently Ethiopian Airways flight times change quite often (I almost missed my flight because it left 1.5 hour earlier!) so always call ahead and confirm.

Food

– You will eat a lot of injera. Learn to enjoy it.
– Sambusas – their version if Indian samosas – make for cheap and delicious snacks.
– The fruit juice is delicious! Second best after the jugos in Colombia. Try their mixed juice, a combination of avocado, guava, strawberry, and mango (or whatever you want).


I had to admit that Addis Ababa was a tough city to love for many reasons. I felt lonely (Ethiopia’s not really a popular choice for solo travelers) and as a lone Asian woman, I stood out like a sore, pus-filled thumb . But I ended up staying in Addis longer against my will so I was forced to deal with it.

Soon I learned that once I figured out how to get around (and how to keep my money safe), met some people, and discovered cafes and restaurants that I could call ‘my own’ – I grew comfortable with the chaos that is Addis. I even took pride in the fact that I knew how to navigate the city by minibuses.

Despite some bad luck I had in Ethiopia, I can honestly say that given the opportunity, I’d go back. There are still parts of the country I didn’t have a chance to visit.

Besides, how could you not like a country that lists ‘pizza’ under desserts?

Pizza as a desert, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

Pizza as dessert

This time though, I’d take my money belt with me and I won’t pet any stray dogs.

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32 Responses to “Tips for Traveling to Ethiopia”

  1. Karen

    I love your blog & have been looking for just this type of info for a long time. I'm leaving next week (17th), with a group, although I'll be in Addis the 1st day by myself. As to crime, any traveler anywhere has to be aware of this, I think the worst pickpockets are in Spain. My personal experience, my son was murdered in Los Angeles at a concert, so could it be worse than that? I don't think so. Again, thank you & I look forward to being in Ethiopia.

    • Mark

      Hi,

      A few points about following the “warnings” of others.

      1. Always, ALWAYS take them with a grain of salt. “I honestly did not like this area(Piassa) at all. It’s dirty, crowded, and just all around high in dodgy-ness level.”
      I love Piassa…for instance, you can sit at the Trianon cafe, on an elevated dias above the fray, and people watch to your heart’s content…you don’t even have to buy anything. Sure, Piassa is noisy and a bit chaotic…but you’re not home and, presumably, you came to Africa to get away from home.

      2. “I’d never experienced so many attempts at pick pocketing in such a short amount of time before.” Lots of places have pickpockets. And seeing picture of your sliced pack, I will assume you were wearing it on your back. As such, you were inviting trouble. 99% of pickpocket trouble can be avoided by common sense…wear a money belt beneath an un-tucked shirt. Wear your bag in front of you wrapping your arms around it. Wear dark or reflective sunglasses and stare down anyone who comes into “your space”. Walk in unpredictable patterns. Give the finger(no not that finger) just point at anyone, who seems to be preparing to get too close. Ethiopians looking to steal from you do not want a physical encounter. While these rules may not work as well say in Cameroon or Chad or Kenya, Ethiopia is different. It is, indeed, safer but you’re not home and you have to take some common sense responsibility. After all, many see us as walking dollar signs.
      3. Bole Road…yes it is more convenient to the airport and the locale for many western-style shops, it tends to be very noisy and extremely polluted with car/bus/truck exhaust.
      4. “Blue public minibuses is a cheap way to get around Addis Ababa.” They are absolutely a bargain considering a contract taxi might cost 50 times more. But, they are typical is states of utter disrepair and the drivers too often speed. Most drivers in Ethiopia are clueless when it comes to road safety. Many people die in these things(I know, I work in a hopsital). The trips can be tiring and often you spend inordinate amounts of time getting somewhere since they have a prescribed routes, unlike the contact taxi. I’ve ridden hundreds in the past but now only when necessary. While you also may get flea bitten you may also meet some great people, some of whom will be sitting half in your lap since they tend to fill them to the brim.

      In the end, the people of Ethiopia will take your heart.

    • Khalil

      Thanks to all people for the valuable information, I plan to visit Addis Ababa soon.
      I hope Karen can post some information when she have a time when she returned back home.
      Thanks for all.

  2. Susan

    My husband and I are traveling to Ethiopia this August to meet with a daughter who is working there for the summer. We have about a week in which to "see Ethiopia," whatever that can mean. I had wanted to do the Historical Circuit in the north, and see Gondar, Simien Mountain Natl Park, Aksum, Tigray and Lalibela, or some subset of those, but I realize that August is a bad time to visit, because of the rains. Getting around will be slow and difficult at that time, won't it?

    So, we are wondering about a few things:

    We can try booking domestic flights so we can escape the long drives in bad conditions, but they are showing up online right now as pretty expensive – on average about $130-200 per person per flight. Will the prices be cheaper if we wait and buy the tickets once we are in Addis? And will there be open seats on the flights? Or do we risk not being able to see the sights because we can't get airfare if we leave it up to the last moment?

    Second, there's always a difficult balancing act between seeing as much as possible and planning too much, when you think this will be the only trip to this destination that you might ever take. Are we crazy to try to go to 3 or 4 destinations besides Addis in just a week? Is it even doable? What would you recommend we see, at this time of the year, for this number of days?

    • jill

      Hi Susan, considering that you only have a week, flying would seem to be your best bet. When I was there, I remember looking into taking a bus and realised that it’d take me most of the day for each leg. Price wise – I bought all of my flight tickets when I was in Addis, sometimes just a day or two before the flight and I remember them being cheaper ($70-$100, then again it’s been a few years).

      If I were you, I’d try making it to Danakil (4 days), and it should leave you a couple of days for the underground churches of Lalibela. Danakil is just simply amazing. I highly recommend it, but it’s way out there and you need a tour. If that’s not possible, the circuit of Lalibela, Gonder, and Axum should be possible to do in a week, even if slightly rushed. When I was there I remember looking into visiting Simien, but the logistic was too much (finding travel buddies to share cost, finding transport) and I didn’t have time.

      I’d recommend that when you arrive in Addis, make your way to the nearest Ethiopian airline office (there’s one in Hilton and I remember them being very helpful) and plan your travels there to minimize layover time. Hope this helps — enjoy your time in Ethiopia and let me know if you have other questions.

    • Susan

      Jill,

      Thanks for your helpful information. Just one more thing…we are planning to fly to a few different cities over the course of our 10 days in Ethiopia, after spending the initial 3 or 4 days in Addis. We have booked a hotel in Addis, but have not yet booked places in the other cities. Should we be worried about finding available lodgings in some of the historical cities in July, or is that not really a problem. We are trying to keep our plans flexible for now, as we may change our minds which cities we will be visiting.

      Thanks for your help…

  3. Carlos

    Thank you for your information. I will be travelling into Ethiopia next September/October, alone. Would like to exchange mails with you. Regards

  4. Carlos

    Thanks for your personal notes. Quite helpfull, for someone like me, travelling alone to Ethiopia later this year… I will be also interested in your Armenian-Georgian experience, since I have been postponing my travel into that part of the world, for some years now, and I hope to go finally there in the near future. Regards, Carlos (Lisbon, Portugal)

    • jilltravel

      I'm glad the article helped someone :) – where are you going in Ethiopia? Id love to hear what you think about it. Let me know if you have any other qs you think I can help you with.

  5. sonjano

    Very good information! Did you manage to get hold of the rabies shot in the end OK?

  6. Andrew

    I've never been in Ethiopia before but planning to visit there end of this year. Glad to learn such awesome tips!! These great tips will help me significantly improvise my travel experience. Thanks.

  7. Mark

    Good tips for travelling to Ethiopia! I decided to go there in last month but truly I was not getting any sort of information about that place. Finally I got from here and now definitely I will go there as early as possible. Thanks for providing this tips and hopefully I will come out in here for getting more information. Stay well.

  8. Formula1

    Hi, am Ethiopian so when i see one post it talks about ‘crimes’ in Ethiopia, to tell the truth this is usual in every country but for the record this crimes are usual at lower sectors of the country anyway the BOLE street is Addis Ababa’s Beverly Hills, and I dont think there are many crimes in beverly hills like america’s slum areas.

  9. Seytie

    I am from Ethiopia and it amazed me the way she put it. Wonderful and funny actually.

  10. Allison

    Loved all the info, since I am going to go there soon. No one knows the in's and out's better than someone who has actually been there. Thank you so much for a well written article.

  11. muatravel

    Hello There. I discovered your blog using msn. This is a really well written article. I'll make sure to bookmark it and return to learn extra of your useful information. Thanks for the post. I'll certainly return.
    muatravel recently posted..1

  12. Debra Curtis

    Hey, I'm a current Peace Corps Volunteer in Ethiopia, and you really don't need to buy a new cell phone before coming. Simple cell phones here are incredibly cheap, much cheaper than in the western world, and work just fine. You can get one at any electronics store for as little as $12.
    Debra Curtis recently posted..10 Things I’ll be Good at After Peace Corps

  13. Tessema

    That's very noble of you to respond to my comment, Jill. To clarify, I wasn't expecting you to endorse my country, I was just using a figure of speech to show the irony in saying you had the worst travel experience there and were 'relieved' to leave the country and yet you would come back to see more.

    Mention Ethiopia to people and many envision drought, civil war and famine.We've struggled to clear those images for the last 30 years with very gradual success.

    After reading your posts again, i may have been a bit too critical with my previous comment but it just felt to me that your commentary, especially in regards to the people, was a little too negative and fellow tourists in comparison were the kind and helpfull ones. But I do know, first hand, that it is a pretty difficult place for a lone tourist, from a collegue that went on their own and struggled. It is definitely a big plus if you have a trusted local that can help out. Not only would the experience be greatly enhanced but you'd save quite a bit too.

    I've read a few travel blogs about Ethiopia and to be honest I get dissapointed if the blogger doesn't have anything negative to say because I know there are lots of problems. I'm yet to read any blog where anybody had been pickpocketted or attempts to have been made. I've also never known it to be as prevalent; although it does exist and Merkato is probably ground zero for that. You must be the unluckiest person I know to have experienced it that many times.

    As you said your blog is your personal space and sorry if I intruded. Hope you have a good deal more adventures to come your way.

  14. Tessema

    I'm an Ethiopian that has worked/ lived in 3 continents over the last 17 years and am about to embark on the Dankil trip. Searching for stuff to read, I stumbled upon this blog.

    Don't really know what to make of it really.

    I approach all travel blogs with an open mind and mostly find them fascinating and informative reading. After going through all your posts about Ethiopia, these are the things I have learned:

    Full of hustlers, pickpockets and cheats,

    Dirty and lacking in service,

    Less than impressive manmade heritage,

    But hey, great natural heritage (if only the people that occupy the land weren't in it)

    Oh well, we all have different ways of taking in things. I have had a phone snatched off of my hand in central London (brazen) and seen somebody's life taken away, right in front of my eyes (Life = Laptop, in this instance), and every major wetern city I've been to has some serious warning about pickpockets and petty thiefs operating in certain areas. So that's not an Ethiopian problem but a WORLD problem. Even amateur travelers should be akin to that fact.

    I did the northern circuit with a foreign friend once and I, too, hated the little buggers shouting money, money… but all i had to do was just throw out a few stern words whenever they got close and off they went running. As Joy eloquently put it in her comment under the 'Lalibela and Gonder' post, you chose to visit one of the poorest contries in the world so you should have anticipated the level of interest in toursits.

    Your view on the historical architecture is fair. Some are awestruck when they see it, some less so. Just like with the Pyramids of Gaza.

    The only redeeming factors seem to be the natural heritage and your peculiar final comment that 'you'd go back if any chance'. Hardly a ringing endorsement after all you've said about the country.

    I suggest travelers also seek out a more balanced view of travel experience in Ethiopia, to this one.

    As for the blogger, I am sorry that your experience was tampered but for the sake you and the country, just stay away. Simples.

    • jill

      You're right, petty crimes can happen anywhere in the world. But they happened to ME in Ethiopia. After reading your comment, I can't help but feeling that you discredit my experience with petty crimes because it's a "world's problem". None in any of my posts I alluded that this is a problem exclusive to Ethiopia.

      I'm sorry that you seem to take offense that I don't have a 'ringing endorsement' about your country. As you can tell, there are certain parts of Ethiopia I really enjoyed and I always say that I'll go back to Ethiopia (this time to visit the eastern and southern part). This is a personal travel blog and my posts are not supposed to be a 'balanced review' of a destination. It takes a much stronger and better person that I am to walk away from Ethiopia after experiencing what I have and give a 'ringing endorsement'.

  15. Therie

    Going to ethiopia tomorro. Jus prayed and this was an answer. Thank the Lord God! Many thanks to jill! I needed a cheap place to stay. Bole road it is.:-)

  16. Teena

    what phone do you recommend? I want to buy a phone here in the usa to use in Ethiopia. I looked up unlocked phones on amazon and best buy but there are so many (and so expensive!). Do you have a recommendation for which phone to bring? brand/make/model? thank you!

  17. Biniam Taye

    Irecha

    Irrecha is one of the intangible cultural heritages of the Oromo people. Once a year the Oromo people celebrate the Irecha around Lake Hora near Debre ziet. This takes place on the first Sunday after Maskal (September 28) and the ceremony centers on sacred trees, particularly around an ancient fig tree. Worshippers ask for favors, fertility, healthy and good fortune. In this celebration more than million people attended from all overcall Ethiopia. The Irrech celebration is related to the worship and thanks giving practice of the Oromo’s, to their God.

    Led by the prominent figure in the community Abba Gadda, the participating communities carry bunches of lovely grasses and flowers in their hands- praise bless and prey to God (Waqaa). The participating women dress cultural dresses and carry Siiqee (Cultural women stick) and men dresses in cultural suits and carrying Aroresaa(Cultural men’s stick) heart fully sings the songs that glorify the power of God and the decoration of the season. Young people usually use the opportunity to select their girl mate and exchange gift.

  18. ari

    thank you so much!!! reading from airport before we leave…really helpful tips!!!

  19. teobesta

    funny to read about a lone asian woman sticking out like a sore thumb in ethiopia

    while i (a solo eritrean woman, born in ethiopia) experience the same thing in asia where i live/travel/cycle

    (-:

  20. a&b

    fabulous post on Addis Ababa. I am fascinated by Ethiopia and I want to get asap, but I will definitely keep all of your tips in mind!

  21. Bama

    Very thorough and practical information. Thanks for this, Jill! I'm sure it'll come handy for any other travelers who have plan to go to Ethiopia. By the way, about the buses yelling out the destination, that just sounds like Indonesia! So, I think I'll survive Addis. :)